Disney Boot Camp: Surviving the Parks

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As with many aspects of Disney planning, the theme parks can be very overwhelming. There are 4 theme parks and 2 water parks on Disney Property and trying to decide what order to see the parks, how many days to spend in each park and what not to miss in the parks can be a challenge. First of all remember that you are on vacation and vacations are not meant to be stressful. There are many that will attack theme park planning with military precision complete with touring plans and a timed schedule. This is not my personal preference. My goal is to come home from Disney feeling that yes I had a busy vacation, but I still had a vacation. I prefer to listen to my body’s cues, my children’s cues, the weather and the crowds than to follow a plan that I have written down, but there are many that swear by touring plans so definitely to each his/her own.

Step 1: Planning for the parks

There are 4 major parks so if you are visiting WDW for 4 days or more I would recommend visiting each park at least 1 day. If you are visiting less than 4 days I would recommend that you pick the 2-3 parks that interest you the most rather than trying to fit multiple parks in 1 day. If you have only 2-3 days in the parks I wouldn’t recommend using up parts of that time travelling between the parks you will get the most out of your time by focusing on an individual park each day.

If you are visiting more than 4 days and have the opportunity to spend more than one day at each park here are my recommendations.

Epcot can easily take 2 days. I like to spend 1 day in Future World and a second day with a later start touring World Showcase.

Magic Kingdom is also a 2 day park. I would spend day arriving at rope drop (or earlier if you have breakfast in the park, more on that later) doing as many rides as possible during the day. A second day can either be late start day or a day with a mid day break where you would stay until park closure and watch the night time parade and the fireworks.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom can both be done in a day, if you have an extra day I would leave it open and then use it go back and visit which ever of these parks you liked best.

What order should you visit the Parks?

I have read recommendations that when touring with kids you should save Magic Kingdom for last because none of the other parks can duplicate the same level of magic. This is precisely why I like to visit Magic Kingdom the first day. It is the centre of all Magic and the sight of Cinderella’s Castle is the official start to our Disney vacation.

I do not have an order of preference for visiting the parks. I plan my day around 2 variables. Park hours and dining.

Park hours and dining reservations are both posted 6 months in advance. I will look at the park hours note any early closures for special events, what days late events light Fantasmic at DHS is playing and what nights each park features Extra Magic Hours for those staying on site. The park hours will generally give me a good idea of what day is best to visit each park. I will then schedule my sit down dinners and make adjustments to my park schedule based on the availability of reservations for these restaurants.

How to get the most out of park hours?

Eat breakfast in the parks before they even open. I spoke about this in my dining blog, but it is worth repeating. Rope drop at each park is near the front of the park, but restaurants and located through out. If the parks opens at 9am and you reserve an 8am breakfast you are now located centrally in the park at the same time that others are just being allowed in. The morning we did breakfast at Cinderella’s castle we rode most of the rides in Fantasyland before most people had even reached this area of the park.

Look for Extra Magic Hours

Extra Magic Hours can be both a benefit and a curse. These extra park hours are offered to anyone staying at a WDW resort. You will have to show your room key in order to be allowed into park to remain in the park after closing. The down side of EMH is that the park can be busier the day of EMH, particularly for am EMH. One tip is that if you have a park hopper ticket just go to the park for the EMH and visit another park for the remainder of the day.

Here are some general tips for the parks

  • travel light, there is a lot of walking in the parks and walking with a large back pack can be uncomfortable and often not practical for riding rides.
  • Make the most of the rides with child swap – This perk allows parents and older children to take turns on rides where the little ones don’t yet reach the height requirements. Often the family can stay together until getting on the ride or you get the flexibility to go on another ride until your party is ready to swap.
  • When possible take breaks mid day – it can be both the busiest and the hottest park of the day. Particularly if you are at a park with late hours or even better EMHs you can come back to the park later to enjoy the rides with less crowds and cooler weather.
  • Evaluate if you need Park Hoppers – After purchasing Park Hoppers for the last 4 vacations I have started to realize that they are not necessarily needed if you plan properly. This can be a good cost savings for your family.
  • Watch the WDW Planning DVD – it can be ordered for free from the Disney Website. It gives a great overview of each park and will give you an idea of what attractions you most want to see.
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The Great On Site, Off Site Debate

Many seasoned Walt Disney travellers fall into one of two categories: On Site or Off Site. On site travellers will boast about the benefits of staying at a Walt Disney World Hotel such as extra magic hours, free transportation and being “right in the magic”. Off site travellers will talk about the value of off site hotels, full kitchens and an opportunity to visit restaurants and stores outside of Walt Disney World.

For the most part my family has been an onsite family. We enjoy being able to arrive at Orlando Airport and be swept away by Disney to the Happiest Place on Earth. We are happy to use Disney’s Dining plan to eat all of our meals on site and to remain on Disney Property until it is time to leave for the airport.

There are also many benefits to staying off site. For the price we pay to stay at a Deluxe resort another family could rent a larger room or suite off site visit the Disney parks every other day and stay twice as long for roughly the same price and since they make many of their meals in the full kitchen provided in their condo staying a second week doesn’t increase their food costs.

So which is best?

Like many things with Disney it is really up to you and your family. For me vacationing means not having to do many of the chores and responsibilities of home so I prefer to eat at restaurants during my vacation rather than cooking my own meals.

When we travel to Disney World we enjoy immersing ourselves in the magic for 7-8 days and are happy to remain on property that entire time. We enjoy allowing Disney to transport us everywhere we need to go, we take advantage of the extra magic hours and planning restaurants for our meals can be part of the fun.

Last year we had our first opportunity to travel to Disney with our vehicle which opened our eyes to many of the experiences staying off site has to offer. While we were staying on site at All Star Music, we were not visiting the parks every day so for the first time we ventured outside the gates of Walt Disney World. Here is what we found.

Starbucks – Now this point will be moot by summer 2013 when the First Starbucks will open at WDW, but travelling off site gave us the opportunity to experience coffee other than the Nescafe slug that WDW tries to pass off as coffee.

Some of the hotels outside of WDW are beautiful. Last year was the first time in 5 visits that we had ventured off property and we were pleasantly surprised to see how beautiful many of the offsite resorts are and how close they are to the WDW gates.

Parking at WDW is not that bad. We decided to take our van to the Magic Kingdom rather than waiting for Disney Transportation. Having never parked at the Magic Kingdom we were pleasantly surprised at how easy the process was.

This year we are again traveling to Orlando and are staying 6 nights before our Disney Cruise. Given our experiences last year we have decided to stay off site for the first time ever.

Comparison of on site/ off site by price – Late August 2013

OnsitePop Century $100 per night

  • Standard room – 2 double beds
  • 3 pools
  • Food court
  • Free parking
  • Free Wifi
  • Fridge in room
  • No resort fee
  • Transportation included to all WDW parks

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Caribe Royale – $97 per night

  • 2 Queen bed suite with separate bedrooms
  • Pool with waterfall and slide
  • Gym
  • 3 restaurants
  • Fridge and microwave in room
  • Free parking
  • No resort fees
  • WIFI available, but fee applies
  • Transportation available, but best to use your own car

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This is a comparison of 2 hotels prices approximately the same price – one inside Disney World and one just outside of Disney Property. It is no means an exhaustive comparison of onsite vs. offsite.